Grasmere, Thirlmere, and Dunmail, Last King of the Britons?


North of Grasmere and south of Thirlmere, beside today’s A591, there is a large cairn of stones, known as Dunmail Raise – the name also applied to the watershed between those two lakes. It turns out that there is a considerable collection of history and storytelling around this cairn, and I thought today I’d relate a little of that.

The cairn at Dunmail Raise

The cairn at Dunmail Raise

From Lake View Country House, Dunmail Raise can be reached on foot, though it is not the most exciting walk in the Lakes! Many people will drive up the A591 instead, and park just before the road splits into dual carriageway.

However you get there, it is worth looking around. Turning south, you can see Grasmere set in its surrounding ring of hills. To the north, Thirlmere can be seen, and beyond it the peaks of Skiddaw and Saddleback (Blencathra). It's a bleak spot if you visit on a day when a chilly wind is sweeping through the pass, but a magnificent one when the views open out for you. It's a fitting site for a battle which – at least in legend – settled the fate of the last king of a British kingdom.

It is likely that that Dunmail – probably the same as Dyfnwal ap Owain, to give him his Cumbrian name – was a king who was defeated by the Saxon king Edmund, who had allied himself with the Scottish king Malcolm. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments:

A.D. 945. This year King Edmund overran all Cumberland; and let it all to Malcolm king of the Scots, on the condition that he became his ally, both by sea and land.

This was just one among the endless shifts of allegiance along the borders – only a few years earlier, Malcolm’s father Constantine had joined with Dunmail's father Owain against the Saxon king Athelstan. They lost that battle – Brunanburh, 937AD – and Owain himself was reputedly buried at Penrith.

Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon

Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon

In a simple version of this story, Dunmail's sons were blinded by the victorious Edmund. But in repeated telling, Dunmail became like another King Arthur. As the tale grew, his loyal followers took his crown – to ensure that the Saxons would not claim it and the kingship – nipped up the track to Grizedale Tarn (following the track around the side of Seat Sandal to join today’s Coast to Coast trail) and cast the crown into the depths. When the time was right, he and it would be reunited and the ancient kingdom restored. The man who was king once would be king again.

I am told that sub-aqua clubs have searched for the crown for some years in vain, but then the waters are very murky, and I suspect that pretty much anything might be hiding there!

Opinions differ, too, as to the meaning of the cairn itself. Some say that it was simply a boundary marker between the old regions of Cumberland and Westmoreland. Others think that it marks the burial place of Dunmail himself. But the story I find most appealing is that it recalls an old military tradition, in which soldiers going into battle would pile up “soul stones” as a safeguard. If they survived, they retrieved the stone from the pile… if not, well the number of stones in the pile was the number of casualties. There are a lot of stones in the pass at Dunmail Raise, and they lie there as they have done for many years, the lichens softening their grim outlines.

South towards Grasmere from Dunmail Raise

South towards Grasmere from Dunmail Raise

Observed in the light of archaeology and historical research, there are a great many uncertainties. Did Dunmail actually die as stated? There is a separate tradition that he died peacefully, much later, while on pilgrimage to Rome. Some people discard the whole tale of the battle as mere legend. What nationality was he? Perhaps he was Norse or Celtic rather than Briton. But to elevate his romantic and literary status, I am going for the idea that he was the last king of the British… as William Wordsworth expressed it in The Waggoner,

The horses cautiously pursue
Their way, without mishap or fault;
And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones; 
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!

 Directions - Lake View Country House to Dunmail Raise

Directions - Lake View Country House to Dunmail Raise

Sign up for exclusive deals & offers